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“Nick,” again

I see the last time I dealt with “nick”–BrE slang for the verb “steal”–was in October 2011, when I categorized it as “On the Radar.” I believe the time has come for a upgrade for full NOOB status. My earlier post included examples only from that fount of Britishisms, the New York Times. But last week, reading the more heartlandy Philadelphia Inquirer, I came upon this sentence, referring to a man who in the 1950s built Roadside America, an 8,000-square-foot model of a mythical village: “He built fire escapes from the family’s curtain rods and nicked his daughter’s dollhouse furniture.”

Of course, the Times continues to use “nick,”most recently in a June 28 theater review, describing a character who “begins to appreciate the convent when she notices that a veil she’s nicked acts ‘like a goddamn spotlight for my cheekbones.’”


New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley is a frequent user of Not One-Off Britishisms, presumably having picked  them up during all the time he spends in London going to plays. In the third paragraph of a review last week of a New York production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Brantley referred to an actor “called” (instead of “named”) Michael Urie, which led me to turn on my NOOBs-dar. And sure enough one came along just a few paragraphs later:

Any suspense in the plot as to do with anticipating when, or if, the townsfolk will twig onto Ivan’s true identity…

“Twig onto” was unfamiliar to me, but it seemed to have a distinct British feel. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a long entry for the verb, with definitions and citations dating from the eighteenth century for four different (similar) meanings: “to observe, to watch”; “to understand, to work out”; “to recognize, to expose”; and “to catch sight of, to become aware of.” Interestingly, the dozens of citation almost all use “twig” alone, rather than followed by “onto,” as Brantley has it. For example, from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: “Brenda had never the agile mind to twig that he was whiling the days between times away with her sister.”

Green’s suggests the word may have been derived from “twick,” meaning “to jerk,” but Stan Carey has (for me) more convincingly argued for a derivation from the Irish “tuig,” meaning “understand.” The argument is bolstered by the fact that the first citation in Green’s (it’s the “observe, watch” meaning) is from the 1754 play The Brave Irishman, by the (Irish) Thomas Sheridan: “Twig his boots.”

Back to the “twig onto” matter, a search for “twigged onto”  on Google News yields a mere sixteen hits, from an intriguing variety of locations: the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and India. But “twigged that” pops up 1,030 times, the overwhelming majority from the U.K. The takeway is that Brantley got it wrong, and should give some thought to the proposition that if you’re going to use a Britishism, you should use it correctly.

“In the Street”

A notable difference in British and American usage can be found in references to streets or roads. We would normally say, “I live on Parrish Road,” while the British would say, “I live in Parrish Road.” This sounds very strange to American ears–as if the speaker were saying they pitched a tent in the middle of a street. That oddness explains (to me) why the otherwise very language-sensitive lyricist of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, could not bring himself to call the song “In the Street Where You Live.”

I was therefore surprised to come on this sign in Philadelphia yesterday:


I would have expected it to say “NO PARKING ON THIS STREET.” It prompted me to do some research with the Google Ngram Viewer tool, which produced this graph:

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 5.32.06 PM

The three lines represent the relative frequency with which the phrase “live on that street” has appeared in American books (red), and the phrase “live in that street” has appeared in British (green) and American (blue) books. “Live on that street” has apparently never appeared in a British book. (I used “that street” instead of “the street” because “live in the street” has in both countries [I believe] an additional meaning–basically, being homeless.)

The interesting takeaway, for me, is looking back at 1940 or so. Apparently U.S. usage up till that time still followed the British model of “in the street,” after which the “on” phrasing steadily gained popularity, coming out on top in about 1950.

I guess Philadelphia doesn’t change its street signs very often

“Done and done”

I hasten to say this is not a Britishism, at least in the way it’s currently used in the U.S. But it relates to a Britishism, so I reproduce below my post on “done and done” from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog:

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on a game called Steep.
  • “First, duh, we just replace the iceberg that the Titanic crashed into with a giant, ocean-based creature. Bang. Done and done.” –article on The Ringer about putting giant animals into classic movies.
  • “Pink suitcases that could fit everything and still be light — done and done. The opportunity to extend the pastel world is so exciting for us.” –Poppy James, of luggage maker Pop+Suki, in Teen Vogue
  • The Princeton University basketball team owns “the spotless 14-0 conference record, and a 17-game winning streak. If this were yesterday, they’d own a bid to the NCAA Tournament, all done and done.”  –

In January, the New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote about Donald Trump’s reality-TV-style approach to the issues of the day: “And what does ‘ending conflict of interest’ look like? A lawyer says the word ‘trust’ a bunch of times, and there’s a big pile of documents. Done and done!”

These and other examples comprise two categories: cases where more than one task has been completed (so that the first “done” refers to one thing and the second another), and cases where it’s just one task (in which the second “done” is rhetorically redundant).

The expression doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or Green’s Dictionary of Slang. But it was used as early as 1712, when, as Richard Bleiler of the University of Connecticut has discovered, in “Whig and Tory: or, Wit on both Sides”:

Which introduc’d the Strife.
At which, the rough Tarpawling
Huzza’d, and made a Hollowing,
By crying, you’re a Whig, Sir,
Altho’ you talk so big, Sir,
And dare not Wage your Life.
When Done and Done was spoken,
A sure and certain Token,
That they both were agreed, Sir,
To do some mighty Deed, Sir . . .

The website World Wide Words investigated the expression in 2004 and found an appearance in the novel Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth, published in 1800: “‘Done,’ says my master; ‘I’ll lay you a hundred golden guineas to a tester you don’t.’ ‘Done,’ says the gauger; and done and done’s enough between two gentlemen.”

World Wide Words explains that tester is “a slang term for sixpence” and  gauger “an exciseman’s assistant who checked the capacity of casks.” It goes on:

… it seems that the usual convention was that a bet was agreed on the mere word of the two principals if both said “done.” They both being gentlemen, or assumed to be such, their word was their bond and there was no question of going back on the agreement once it had been made. Hence “done and done” meant that a binding agreement had been mutually accepted.

A half century after Edgeworth’s book, the expression seems to have become established, as well as crossed the Atlantic. From James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater (1848): “Done and done between gentlemen, is enough, sir.”

But the current use of the expression has a different meaning — “Done thoroughly and satisfactorily,” as Wiktionary puts it. Wiktionary’s first citation for it is a short story called “A Natural Notion,” by David Seybold, included in the 1985 book Seasons of the Hunter: An Anthology, edited by Seybold and Robert Elman: “Done and done, he said to himself. And he felt pretty good. The anger and hurt that only a few hours before had been sharp and deep had dulled.”

My sense is that this second meaning of done and done took hold after the turn of the 21st century and has really taken off in the last few years. And my hypothesis is that its popularity sprang from another, similar sounding expression, done and dusted, which I covered in this blog in 2015:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “completely finished or ready.” Its citations are all from British sources, starting with the British Bee Journal, which had this line in 1953: “All to be done and dusted before the National Honey Show. After this the grand clear up.”

Done and dusted, which appears to have originated as a Northwest England regionalism, became in vogue in the 1990s Britain, but still hasn’t achieved much popularity in the United States, as this Google Ngram Viewer graph shows:

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 10.09.08 AM

So here’s the hypothesis. Done and dusted is a useful expression, the alliterative double verb giving strong emphasis to the idea of a job completed. But it sounds too, well, British, for Americans to want to use it, at least for the time being. So we Yanks cleverly resurrected a similar-sounding older phrase, and cleverly assigned to it the same meaning as done and dusted.

The done and done question?

Done and done.

The Case of the Missing “Brilliant”

A couple of weeks ago, I noted on this blog an ad that appeared in my local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a suspiciously British “brilliant“:


But then, just a couple of days ago, I opened the Inquirer to find this:


Which made me wonder: Did Samsung suddenly realize that “brilliant” was a NOOB and replace it with the much more American “beautifully”? Or do they run the ads in rotation? Or is there some other explanation?

If by a remote chance someone from the Samsung advertising department reads this blog, do me a solid and let me know.




“Go to ground” Gets a Bump

A few years back I wrote about the expression “go to ground,” which originated in fox-hunting and came to mean “disappear”–not in the “go missing” sense but as a deliberate act, a sort up souped-up lying low (or, as it’s nearly universally rendered in the U.S., “laying low”).

The expression has been picked up by U.S. sources in the past week in reference to Christoper Steele, the former British intelligence officer who put together a dossier alleging bad behavior by Donald Trump and, when the news came out, flew the coop. So the New York Times had this headline:


While checking out recent uses of the expression, I noticed something I didn’t mention in my original post. In As mentioned in the original post, in British football and rugby coverage, “go to ground” is used more literally–meaning a player who for one reason or another has actually ended up on the ground. As in:


As Tara McAllister Byum has pointed out on Twitter, a slang expression long favored by doctors  and used in the 1978 novel “The House of God” is “Gomers go to ground.” (“Gomer”–possibly an acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room.) According to an article in Phramacy Times, “The gomer was often an elderly patient, and one of the ‘laws] of the book was that ‘gomers go to ground,’ referring to their tendency to fall or fall out of bed.”

Very British-y “Brilliant” in a Samsung Ad


(For more on “brilliant”as NOOB, read this.)